Record Review: B-52’s – Whammy!

Warner Bros. Records ‎| US | CD | 1989 | 9 23819-2

Warner Bros. Records ‎| US | CD | 1989 | 9 23819-2

B-52’s: Whammy! US CD [1989]

  1. Legal Tender
  2. Whammy Kiss
  3. Song For A Future Generation
  4. Butterbean
  5. Trism
  6. Queen Of Las Vegas
  7. Moon 83
  8. Big Bird
  9. Work That Skirt

Today’s review completes my trifecta of vintage New Wave reviews of albums that I never had or even heard until right now. And in an eerie coincidence, each of these albums was the third album by the groups in question… coincidence?? [insert stinger]. I was an early adopter of the B-52’s [does that possessive apostrophe in their name bother you too?] and after seeing that screaming yellow zonker of a debut album tempting me in the racks for at least a year, I finally bit after seeing them on Saturday Night Live in the dawning days of 1980. The album was a polarizing smash with some of my friends hating it and others borrowing it to take it to clubs! I loved the day-glow, anything goes vibe that was surprisingly sophisticated beneath its veneer of simplicity.

When their sophomore album, “Wild Planet” was released late in 1980, of course it was the album of the week! In high school, my lunch money went to records, of course, and I could buy a new one each week with the $7.50 I was allotted. This one was not the world shifting paradigm that the first one was, of course. We had an idea of what to expect this time, but “Wild Planet” very successfully plowed and re-planted the field that was theirs alone, back in the day. I can’t say why I didn’t bite for “Whammy!” but it remained until last Sunday morning, when I saw a bundled package of 2 CDs for $4.00 at 2nd&Charles; a pairup that could only appeal to me since there was no rhyme or reason behind it. $4.00 netted me CDs of “Whammy!” and Steely Dan’s “Aja.” I’ll let you wonder how and why those were grouped for sale, but the price was certainly right and I’ve been obsessed with Steely Dan’s “Peg” for longer than I care to admit.

B52s - legaltenderUS7AOf course, I remember hearing “Legal Tender” when it became the first video by the group on MTV. It was a fun enough song, but the appeal was hampered by the group’s over reliance on synthesizers and drum machines. While there were synths used on the first two albums, the wholesale vibe on those records was primarily rock instrumentation filtered through a Nino Rota/Yoko Ono obsession. Here the main course of the day was straight up synthpop, ca. 1983. The song was fine, but the sound was thin.

The next song was ostensibly the title cut here. “Whammy Kiss” was a strange one. It sounded more like a dub mi of a B-52’s track, which sort of made sense since producer Steven Stanley had worked with the band in a mixing capacity on the band’s previous “Party Mix” EP and his dub credentials from the Tom Tom Club records [that probably had the closest vibe to the B-52’s of any other New Wave act] came by honestly enough. Still, the distance given Fred Schneider’s vocals here after the extended intro seemed to be off putting. The whole track sounds like the work of aliens who were exposed to the B-52’s once and told to make some music. The traits were there, but they failed to gel here.

b52s - songforafuturegenerationUS7AI can’t say the same regarding the second and more wonderful single, “Song For A Future Generation.” This had drum machines and synths dampening the spirit of the music, but the song in question was strong enough to compete with the thin sound here. I love how the whole band vocalize here and the batty refrain of “…let’s meet, and have a baby now” was simply bonkers yet brilliant.

Next up is my favorite song from this album. “Butterbean” was a gleeful celebration of the humble legume. Here the synthesizers were used for quirky, almost novelty effect, which I have to say fit the feel of the band better than on the previous tunes. Fred Schneider takes this one all over the map as he exhorts his ardor for the titular bean. The sense of absurdity, that someone would make a song about how much they loved butter beans, was the almost child-like aspect of this number that was most endearing to me.

“Well you can have your yams
You can have your collared greens
But if you want to please little ol’ me
You better fix butterbeans!” 

What would be side two began with “Trism,” a curiously sober kind of science fiction based song for this zany party band. Definitely a new wrinkle for this album, as the next tune “Queen Of Las Vegas” sounds from the title like a typically kitschy B-52’s song, while the song reveals itself to be almost a country + western “momma’s dyin’” weeper about the skeletons in the family closet that resulted in the singer. These two songs attempt to broaden the band’s thematic reach but are only partially successful, since they are shoehorned into a synth-heavy coat of paint applied with a heavy hand to the band’s traditional party vibe. There are a lot of tentative new directions tried here and the album failed to cohere as a result.

Track seven was filler to these ears: “Moon 83” being a remix of “There’s A Moon In The Sky [Called The Moon}” from that amazing debut album. It played like a dub version with the vocals set into a new squiggly synth-funk backing. I later learned that the original track seven for the first pressing of the 1983 album was a cover of meta-influence Yoko Ono’s “Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand in the Snow).” this was removed from all subsequent pressings so I guess I’ll have to track down an LP of “Whammy!” to hear it, but seeing as how it’s an anguished response to Ms. Ono’s custody battle for her daughter with her ex-husband, I can’t imagine that the tone of it is appropriate at all for the B-52’s to cover it. But who knows, next to “Queen Of Las Vegas” it might have made sense.

The album then blindsided me with a left field moment that shocked… because it sounded like a classic B-52’s number with Cindy Wilson’s crazed bongo playing and a wailing horn section glossing over the canned, synthetic rhythms here for a vibrant feel that only “Butterbean” managed to attain here. The closing “Work That Skirt” was a bad move after “Big Bird.” The canned rhythms here on this instro were lifeless, and “Moon 83” was practically another instrumental with only parts of the chorus retained for that number. It makes for a weak ending for what was definitely an uneven album.

I had not been convinced by “Mesopotamia” and hearing the follow up decades later, this one took a bit of time to warm up to fully. On first listens, the sonic palette can only be seen as a mistake for this once very vibrant to overcome as they then sounded like a Casio-driven synthpop band like any other in the waning light of the New Wave movement ca. 1983. The stabs at more serious songwriting on side two don’t really mesh with the wackier vibe on side one. But given a few listens, I’ve been drawn in more than I anticipated up front with this album. It had three stone cold classics in “Song For A Future Generation,” “Butterbean” and “Big Bird” with a near miss with “Legal Tender,” the song here that could have benefitted the most from a reduction of drum machines and synths.

It’s hard to believe, but originally the band and producer Stanley had wanted to mix the album tracks together ala “Party Mix” with each cut segueing into the next. With the tonal shifts on some of this material, I can understand why Warner Brothers balked at that notion. In any case, the legacy of that notion remained in the long extended instrumental vamp intros/outros to some of the songs here. “Particularly with “Whammy Kiss” and “Big Bird.” The latter sustains the notion better due to the preponderance of real instruments on the cut. This band come alive when instruments [or even toys] were being played in a room by human hands. Alas, nothing I’ve heard of the B-52’s going forward [“Cosmic Thing” and parts of “Good Stuff”] suggest that this ever came to pass.

– 30 –

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32 Responses to Record Review: B-52’s – Whammy!

  1. Gavin says:

    This was the first album by the band that I ever heard and the song “Queen of Las Vegas” has obsessed me for years,tied with “Debbie” as my fave by the group.I have never been a huge fan in that I own only a couple of records but they have always been there on the periphery and have always been one of those bands whose influence,kookiness and sheer energy has always impressed me.

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Gavin – You really must hear the debut album and try, try to imagine its impact within the context of its time! It was a singular experience. What I want to know is this: What, exactly is being depicted on the cover? On a tiny CD it almost looks like the band having cocaine fall from the sky onto them while a dog is licking it up. Am I cracked?

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  2. jsd says:

    I suppose my appreciation for this album is colored by the time in which I first heard it – on its original release. Of course the synthpop production didn’t sound at all out of place back then. I love pretty much all of this record. Legal Tender is so catchy, I was obsessed with it for months.

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  3. Echorich says:

    I’ve always wondered whether The B-52s were meant to be an 80’s band. For me they are firmly a late 70’s band. This is because after Wild Planet, I feel like they lost the plot, or put their fortunes in the hands of people who thought they understood the band but really didn’t. The idea of David Byrne producing Athen’s party band had been bandied about for a few years but it was an idea that sounded better and proved to be a big mistake. Mesopotamia is really kind of sad.
    Sure, they had a second life and break out at the absolute tail end of the 80’s (the END of the 80s is the point) with Cosmic Thing and Love Shack, but this is basically because they returned to some of their earliest lessons to inform their sound again.
    Sure there are songs I like from their post 1980 releases – Song For A Future Generation, Girl From Ipanema Goes To Greenland, Channel Z – but their were many more that made me cringe.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Good point about them being in a 70s band protective bubble. “Cosmic Thing” had real musicians playing on it, which didn’t hurt the sound, but the almost outsider vibe of those first two records had been supplanted by steely-eyed, flat-bellied professional session players. Not a good fit. Maybe the B-52’s were cursed once they lost their naïveté? Which was perhaps inevitable once Chris Blackwell got involved? Had they remained an indie phenomenon, they might have weathered the storm of the 80s somewhat better?

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      • Echorich says:

        Point taken, yes, Cosmic Thing is B-52s with a slick, shiny, silver paint job. Thankfully the songs could hold up to the shiny mirror finish.
        As for that “protective bubble” I would apply it to Talking Heads, Blondie and The Cars. I really don’t have much love for any Heads music after Remain In Light – it just doesn’t move me. Blondie lost me after AutoAmerican. Ric Ocasek and the boys seemed to be on “cruise control” after Panorama – yes it took them to higher reaches of the charts, but at the expense of creativity.

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Echorich – You have the seed of a good thesis there! In all candor you could probably add Bowie to that list though this means discounting the occasionally fine work he’s done in the last 35 years, but let’s face it. Not even the best of it stands up to what came before that line in the sand, yes?

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          • Echorich says:

            It all went pear shaped with the move to EMI and Let’s Dance. Going after the American market can do that to an artist. In the years between Let’s Dance in 83 and Black Tie White Noise in 93, I can probably cobble together a decent Bowie album.

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            • postpunkmonk says:

              Echorich – Really? A whole album? I would think an EP at most. Maybe 6 tracks.

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              • Echorich says:

                Cruel…I have a guilty secret – I don’t really mind Tonight…

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              • Echorich says:

                So, I can take that challenge Monk…and I’m ready for the scorn and scoffing…Here’s a playlist I just happen to have on my iMac:
                IMAGINARY BOWIE
                1. Criminal World
                2. Loving The Alien
                3. This Is Not America
                4. Jump They Say
                5. Bang Bang
                6. Neighborhood Threat
                7. Pallas Athena
                8. Real Cool World
                9. Shake It

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                • postpunkmonk says:

                  Echorich – I thought you meant up to “Black Tie/White Noise.” Without the latter, six tracks, maybe. That’s barring any Tin Machine stuff. Including everything after “Scary Monsters” and before “Buddha Of Suburbia,” here’s my “Bowie: Lost in The 80s.”
                  1. Under Pressure
                  2. Cat People [Moroder]
                  3. Modern Love
                  4. Loving The Alien
                  5. This Is Not America
                  6. Time Will Crawl
                  7. Under The God
                  8. Baby Universal
                  9. You’ve Been Around
                  10. Jump They Say
                  11. Nite Flights

                  The sad thing is, the last track is my favorite of those!

                  Like

                  • Echorich says:

                    Good choices, I decided to leave off Under Pressure and Cat People because I see them as pre Let’s Dance. If I add them in , I’d take out Jump They Say and Bang Bang.

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                  • SimonH says:

                    Why on earth is the Moroder version of Cat People ignored these days in favour of the inferior Lets Dance version? Annoying!
                    Funny, I only bought Whammy two weeks ago after finding it in a charity shop for £1.50….agree more or less with your assessment, worth having overall.
                    Very strange double deal you got, I love Steely Dan but not two bands I would say compliment each other.

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                  • postpunkmonk says:

                    SimonH – Well, the “Let’s Dance” version was on a Bowie album that sold like it was the second coming. The vastly superior Moroder version was on a soundtrack album; albeit one that’s superior to the Bowie album! I still have a copy on LP!

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                • JT says:

                  You know, I always really liked “Blue Jean”.

                  Like

                  • postpunkmonk says:

                    JT – I think that “Blue Jean” would be a great Tommy Roe tune, but falls short of the mark that Bowie set. So while popsong = “yay” Bowiesong = “boo.”

                    Like

        • JT says:

          Put Devo in the Cars/Blondie/B-52’s/T.Heads “American new wave” bubble too.
          Oh No, It’s Devo is a record I really like, but it came out the same year as Whammy!, and it sounds similar, sonically. As someone else said, at the time this production style sounded natural to me, it was just the way things were going with American new wave music. But now, hearing the first couple of Devo/B-52’s records compared to these mid-period ones, both bands did get a bit sterile ca.1983 before tanking completely immediately thereafter.
          That said, I do like both of them as synth pop records quite a lot, stylistic changes nonwithstanding, considering them on their own and separating them from previous releases by these bands. I had Whammy! on vinyl, and I miss the Ono cover, it’s not as distressing as the Monk posits, and is far better than Moon 83, which was clearly a bit of last-minute stop-gap filler for the reissue. I think it was originally a b-side.

          Here’s a new list: last great albums by American New Wave bands before being sterilized by major labels. Looks like I’m giving most of these bands one more record worth of slack than most of you, but I’m going with what appears to be an expiration date of 1983 for most of the concerned parties:
          Oh No, it’s Devo / Autoamerican / Whammy / Shake it Up / Speaking in Tongues.

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          • postpunkmonk says:

            JT – Well, I can say that looking back, 1981 was a peak year with each subsequent year getting watered down musically as the 80s overtook the late 70s. Even at the time, I could sense that something had shifted, and that the peaks of ’82, ’83 would be lower than the years that had led up to that period. The records that I bought on my birthday in 1982 were:

            Peter Gabriel – 4
            Icehouse – Primitive Man
            Altered Images – Pinky Blue

            The previous year gave up:
            Ultravox – Rage In Eden
            John Foxx – The Garden
            Gary Numan – Dance

            It’s the difference between good and great; and it only got more pronounced with time moving forward.

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            • JT says:

              These are all British acts.
              The ones listed elsewhere on this thread are mostly American.

              I view American New Wave as a related but distinctly different phenomenon from UK Post Punk and/or Synth Pop… I’d argue that New Wave, in and of itself, and for what it offered, jumped the shark at a different point in time than either Post Punk or Synth Pop (or Synth Britannia).

              Anyway, my thought in posting the list of albums that I did was to consider the last gasps of greatness by these bands, not the to track their peak years…

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              • postpunkmonk says:

                JT – Well, you’re right there. I went off on a skewed tangent. Those US New Wave acts all went off the rails after 1981. It might have been that the success that they had was fatal to perennial underdogs such as those who defined the movement. I can say that DEVO were probably shocked by their top 20 success and having actually sold units, their problems really began in earnest.

                Except that Blondie went platinum with “Heart Of Glass” and still gave us “Eat To The Beat” afterward. Talking Heads didn’t get their top 10 single until regrouping several years after the Eno implosion of 1980. The Cars didn’t sell as many copies of “Panorama” as the two preceding albums, and it may have been their “Dazzle Ships” moment, where the band circled the wagons and did what was necessary to keep the units moving at the levels all concerned were expecting.

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  4. Taffy says:

    Oh Whammy…I wanted to love it, but I never really did. I liked it, partly cuz it was on this tour when I finally saw the band live, and of course they charmed the pants off me. But after the surfy-twangy thriftshop genius of the first two albums, Whammy just seemed a little too flimsy, the synths a little too processed. Over the decades I’ve gotten a little closer to it, but it will always remain my fifth fave B-52s effort (after the first two, Cosmic Thing and Mesopotamia).

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  5. Mark T. says:

    Big Bird and Butter Bean are the worst songs on Whammy!, Legal Tender is the best. Get the cotton out of your freakin’ ears.

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Mark T. – Welcome to the comments. Actually I don’t put cotton in my ears. I prefer peanut butter. It not only filters out harsh frequencies, but it also moisturizers. I may need to revisit “Whammy” and get back to you!

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  6. Just bought Whammy after being a fan for 35 years but never buying that album (or bouncing off the satellites, for that matter) Both albums never got much (any ?) airplay in Australia, and I always just assumed the band had a hiatus in the mid 80’s after the death of Ricky. I have to say, I’m unimpressed. Here’s hoping bouncing off the satellites can redeem them… I guess I should keep an eye out for Mesopotamia too…

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Paul Rhoweder – Welcome to the comments! I won’t beat around the bush. All B-52s albums following ” Wild Planet” that I have heard fail to come close to equalling that wildly creative debut album. Any pleasures “Mesopotamia,” “Whammy,” and presumably ” Bouncing Off Satellites” [I’ve not heard it either] offer compared to the first two are almost insignificantly incremental. Their’s was the problem of synthesizing something wild and incredibly inventive and then trying to follow it up.

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  7. uglyblackjohn says:

    I’d agree that their first two albums held up better with time.
    Mesopotamia isn’t that bad if purchased in the Party Mix combo. (I did like ‘Nip It In the Bud’ and ‘Loveland’ from Mesopotamia.)
    Whammy? I liked the first six songs (except for Butterbean) and by the time it got to ‘Don’t Worry’ (I don’t think I’ve ever heard ‘Moon 83’) it was time to put an Oingo Boingo tape into the old Walkman.
    I bought Bouncing Off the Satellites as soon as I saw the Kenny Scharf cover art.
    By the time Cosmic Thing came out, ‘Follow Your Bliss’ (The only track I liked from the album) was a suitable end to my B-52’s fandom.
    Whammy falls somewhere in the middle of all their albums.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      uglyblackjohn – There are so many versions of “Mesopotamia” that I think I’ll still just sit that one out. I never cared for “Party Mix.” Those were some of the earliest Post-Modern remixes made from tracks on the debut album that were already two years old at the time. I still have a copy of “Cosmic Thing” that I have not played in a quarter of a century. It had little of the wild vitality of the first two. Time to divest, I think.

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